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You Can't Rely on Social Security Alone in Retirement: 3 Steps for Saving More in Your 401(k) or IRA

By Katie Brockman – Jul 20, 2020 at 11:02AM

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Social Security may not be as dependable as it once was, so it's more important than ever to have a healthy retirement fund.

For millions of retirees, Social Security benefits make the difference between a comfortable retirement and barely scraping by. However, if you're relying too much on benefits, it could potentially put your retirement at risk.

Roughly 1 in 5 married couples and nearly half of unmarried beneficiaries depend on their monthly Social Security checks for at least 90% of their income in retirement, according to the Social Security Administration. But the average beneficiary receives just $1,503 per month, which doesn't leave much wiggle room if there are benefit cuts in the future.

Older couple feeling worried and looking at documents

Image source: Getty Images.

Because it's possible benefits could be reduced in the future, it's extra important to build a healthy retirement fund. Currently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is leaning on its two trust funds to continue paying out benefits in full. But once those trust funds run dry in 2034 (or even sooner, thanks to COVID-19), benefits could be reduced by nearly 25%. For those who depend on their benefits to make ends meet, these cuts could spell disaster.

Saving more might be a challenge if money is tight, but there are a few steps you can take to stash more cash in your retirement account.

1. Track your spending and make budget cuts wherever possible

Keeping track of all your expenses will give you a good idea of where all your money is going each month, making it easier to see if there are areas where you're overspending. Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much you're spending until you see all of your expenses mapped out in front of you, so tracking your costs can help you find areas to cut back.

Once you know exactly how much you're spending each month, divide your expenses into various categories, such as "essential," "nice to have," and "unnecessary." Unnecessary costs, like a gym membership you never use or subscription costs you forgot you were paying for, should be the first to go. Next, try to cut back on some of the nice-to-have and essential expenses. You don't have to completely eliminate these costs, but trimming even a few dollars here and there can go a long way.

2. Establish a healthy emergency fund

Although building an emergency fund may seem like it would hinder your ability to save for retirement, it can actually help you save more in the long run. When you have a few months' worth of savings set aside in an emergency fund, you won't need to tap your 401(k) or IRA if you're hit with an unexpected expense.

Most experts recommend saving enough in your emergency fund to cover around three to six months' worth of general living expenses, but it could be wise to save a little more than that during the coronavirus pandemic. If you lose your job right now, you could be out of work for a while. By surviving on your emergency savings, you can leave your retirement fund alone and allow your savings to grow.

3. Analyze your fees

Every retirement account -- whether you're investing in a 401(k), traditional IRA, or Roth IRA -- has fees. However, 37% of Americans mistakenly believe they don't pay fees, according to a survey from TD Ameritrade, and another 22% aren't sure whether they pay fees or not.

The average 401(k) plan charges an annual fee of around 1% of total assets under management, a report from the Center for American Progress found. So if you have $100,000 in your retirement account, $1,000 per year goes toward fees.

Paying just slightly higher than average fees can add up over time. The average worker paying 1% in retirement account fees per year can expect to spend more than $138,000 in fees alone over a lifetime, according to the Center for American Progress. If that same worker paid annual fees of 1.3%, though, the amount that worker will pay in lifetime fees jumps to more than $166,000.

To determine what you're paying in fees, talk to your plan administrator or check your account statements. The expense ratio is the main figure to look for, and if it's higher than average, it might be worthwhile to consider moving your money to a different account. The one caveat is if you're investing in a 401(k) that offers matching contributions from your employer. In that case, invest enough to earn the full match, then consider contributing the rest of your cash to an account with lower fees.

Saving for retirement isn't easy

It can be challenging to save for retirement, especially if you have multiple financial priorities competing for your hard-earned cash. But with Social Security on shaky ground, it's more important than ever to make sure you have a robust retirement fund so you can enjoy your senior years comfortably.

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